5 Chapter 5: Perennialism

Perennial Flowers

This chapter will explore the first of six philosophies of education. A philosophy provides educators with a “framework for determining broad issues and tasks, the process of teaching and learning, and in general, what 
experiences and activities to stress in schools and classrooms” (Ornstein, 1991, p. 102). The six key philosophies of education that will be explored in this text are: Perennialism, Progressivism, Behaviorism, Essentialism, Social Reconstructionism, and Postmodernism. The in-depth look at Perennialism, which will be provided in this chapter, will begin with an overview of the key characteristics of Perennialism. Information related to the curriculum, instructional methods, the role of the teacher, and role of the learner will also be explored. Finally, key proponents of Perennialism and their contributions will be discussed.

Section I: characteristics of Perennialism

5.1 Essential Questions

By the end of this section, the following essential questions will be answered:

  1. In what 
of thought is Perennialism rooted?
  2. What is the educational 
 focus of Perennialism?
  3. What do Perrenialists 
 believe are 
 the primary 
 goals of schooling?

Perennialism is identified as a very 
 conservative theory of education. Rooted in the following schools of thought: idealism, realism, and neo-Thomism, the educational focus of 
 Perennialism is on finding universal truths and absolutes associated with reason and faith (Webb et. al., 2010). According to this theory of education, truth is universal and does not change.

The literal definition of perennial means “everlasting” or something that “returns year after year.” As implied by its name, Perennialism is based upon the belief that there are everlasting ideas and universal truths. Therefore, the 
primary goal of education within this philosophy is to search for and disseminate truth. In addition, this philosophy of education advocates for the cultivation of human intellect.

5.2 A Closer Look

The following article provides a detailed overview of Perennialism. This chapter will provide a review of the following key concepts:

  • Historical Retrospect of Perennialism
  • Forms of Perennialsim
  • Philosophical Rationale

After reading the article, please respond to the following questions to consider.

  1. Who was one of the key contributors to this 
 philosophy (historically)?
  2. Who was one of the key contributors to this philosophy (contemporary)?
  3. What are the two main forms of this philosophy?
  4. Who is the philosophical rationale behind this

Perennialism in Education


Section II: Curriculum

5.3 Essential Questions

By the end of this section, the following essential questions will be answered:

  1. How does the curriculum differ among Ecclesiastical Perennialist and Lay (secular) Perennialists?
  2. What are the goals within a Perennialist curriculum?
  3. Do you think the focus of this curriculum is beneficial for students? Why or why not?

There are two main types of Perennialist. Ecclesiastical Perennialists and Lay (secular) Perennialists. Both groups have had a significant influence on the type of curriculum used in Perennialist classrooms.

Ecclesiastical Perennialists

Ecclesiastical Perennialists followed 
 a Christian doctrine. Consequently, 
 curriculum taught by this group focused on
developing intellect while stressing faith and reason by creating a relationship with God (Webb et. al., 2010). The stress on faith was seen in the use of scriptures, catechism, and instruction on Christian dogma. St. Thomas Aquinas (1224- 1274), who is the patron saint of Catholic schools, colleges and universities, is a noted ecclesiastical philosopher.

Lay (Secular) Perennialists

Historically, Lay (secular) Perennialists emphasized a strong liberal arts curriculum that included: “philosophy; mathematics; history; geography; political science; sociology; theology; languages and literature; physical and life sciences; and the fine arts and humanities” (Webb et. al., 2010, p. 71). In order for students to become truly intellectual beings, they needed to be able to master each of these subject areas according to the Perennialist philosophy. One way to do this was by reading the Great Books of the Western World Program. The program identified 100 of the “classic” literature books that Perennialist argue must be taught to students to cultivate students intellect and civilization. Other aspects of the curriculum taught by Lay Perennialists were character training and moral development.

In the last 100 years, Perennialists are more focused on using the curriculum as a context for developing intellectual skills like those associated with the three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic). One of the reasons for a more uniform approach to curriculum is the idea of a one-size-fits-all mentality. According to the Perennialist philosophy, carefully supervised exposure to permanent studies helps to create rational, enlightened, and intellectually stimulated citizens.

5.4 An Example in Practice

St. John’s College

St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland is a great example of a University that follows a Perennialist philosophy. At St. John’s, classes emphasize the 
 discussion of foundational works of philosophy, 
 literature, history, theology, politics, economics, 
 psychology, music, mathematics, and laboratory 
 sciences. The faculty promote an educational focus that privileges intellectual engagement and they 
 regard themselves as guides and mentors whose task is to pose questions that further the student’s ability to think critically. Students, on the other hand, are 
 encouraged to formulate questions and develop 
 their thoughts in dialogue with one another using strategies like Socratic circles.

Instruction in the Classroom

5.5 Essential Questions

By the end of this section, the following essential questions will be answered:

  1. What are the 
 main methods of instruction in a Perennialist 
  2. What is the teachers 
 role in the classroom?
  3. What is the students 
 role in the classroom?
  4. What strategies do students use in Perennialist classrooms?

At the elementary level, a Perennialist teacher would focus on the management and teaching of basic educational skills. To support educators in meeting this goal, they are supposed to use the “Great Books” of Western civilization.

Socratic Circle

Adler (1984) also suggested the
following three methods of instruction:

  • Didactic Instruction
  • Coaching
  • Socratic Method

In order to prepare students for the instruction they would receive in a Perennialist classroom, they first needed to be taught how to think critically. In addition, they would have to learn questioning strategies so that they could engage in meaningful “dialogue” about the classical literature they would be reading (Webb et. al., 2010).

Teachers Role

For Perennialists, the teacher is seen as the authority figure in the classroom. As the authority figure, it is up to the teacher to disseminate the truth. The teacher can do this by acting as a seminar leader or coach. According to Adler (1984), as a seminar leader, the teacher illustrates the power of the literature being read through questioning. When done correctly, this questioning should help students think rationally. One of the most popular methods for questioning students is the Socratic Method.

5.6 An Example in Practice

For an example of the Socratic Method, please watch the video titled: Socratic Seminar Strategies for the Second Grade Classroom. As you are watching the video, think about how this teacher is acting as a seminar leader or coach for her students.


For an example of the Socratic Method being used at the Secondary Level, please watch the video titled:

Socratic Seminar in Action in the Secondary ELA Classroom. Once again, as you are watching the video, think about the key elements of the Socratic Method that stand out to you.


As demonstrated in the video, the coach or teacher needs to closely watch the students, offer immediate feedback or pose additional questions to engage students in higher-level thinking. In addition, a successful coach and teacher within this philosophy needs to:

  • Be well versed in the classics
  • Possess a good memory
  • Be capable of the highest forms of reasoning (Webb, 2010).

1. Do you think you have the skills to be a seminar 
 leader? Why or why not?

2. What qualities do you have that would make you 
 a good coach? What would you need to improve 

Students Role

The students are supposed to learn the “truth” as taught to them by the teacher. Since truth does not change, students’ interests or experiences are not reflected in what is taught in a Perennialist classroom. In fact, the issue of diversity is not even relevant, because learning is not about diversity.

5.7 A Close Look

For a more information about the Perennialist philosophy, please watch the following video. As you watch the video, please think about the following questions:

  1. What is the aim or education according to Perennialism? Do you agree with this aim? Why of why not?
  2. What as one of Hutchin’s three assumptions about education? Do you agree with this assumption? Why or why not?
  3. What is one key role of the teacher in Perennialism? How good do you think you would be at implementing this role as a teacher?
  4. What are TWO of the eight basic principles of Perennialism? Do you agree that these are important to education? Why or why not?

Key Educators

5.8 Essential Questions

By the end of this section, the following Essential Questions will be answered:

  1. Who were 
 the key proponents 
 of Perennialism?
  2. What 
impact did 
 each of the 
 key educators 
 of Perennialism 
have on this philosophy 
of education?

Historically, this philosophy reflects the views of Plato and Aristotle. The search for truth, which is the basis of this philosophy, can be seen in both of these famous philosophers works. Other historical philosophers who greatly influenced the development of Perennialism were St. Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274) and 
 Jacques Maritain (1882-1973). Both of these philosophers represented the Ecclesiastic Perennialist position. As such, they argued that intelligence alone was not sufficient to understand the universe, it was also critical to have a relationship with a higher Spiritual being.

Lay (secular) philosophers that have influenced perennialism include: Robert M. Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, and Allan Bloom.

Robert M. Hutchins (1899 – 1977)

Robert M. Hutchins was a chancellor of the University of Chicago who argued that the ideal education is one that is designed to develop the mind (Webb, 2010). To support the development of the mind, he proposed a curriculum based on the “Great Books” of Western civilization.

Hutchin’s believed in what he called the “permanent studies.” These were core courses in liberal arts whose content did not change. As such, he argued that selecting 100 “Great Books” and teaching them to students naturally aligned with these permanent studies.
 Sample titles of the first 10 out of 54 Volumes of the  “Great Books” include:

Robert M. Hutchins
  • Volume 1: The Great Conversation
  • Volume 2: Syntopicon I
  • Volume 3: Syntopicon II
  • Volume 4: Homer
  • Volume 5: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes
  • Volume 6: Herodotus & Thucydides
  • Volume 7: Plato
  • Volume 8: Aristotle
  • Volume 9: Aristotle
  • Volume 10: Hippocrates & Galen

Mortimer Adler

Mortimer J. Adler

Mortimer Adler proposed a curriculum that would be appropriate for all students. Within such a curriculum, students would be taught language, literature, mathematics, natural sciences, fine arts, history, geography, and social studies (Webb et. al., 2010).

He also advocated for the use of the “Great Books” by arguing that students could learn a lot from the great works of the past. Both Adler and Hutchins opposed any form of differentiated curricula (e.g., vocational, technical, or academic) under the guise that all students in a democratic society should have access to the same high-quality education.

Allan Bloom

Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind (1987). In this book, he talks about “cultural illiteracy” being a crisis in today’s society. In order to address this crisis, he advocates teaching and learning about the “Great Books” because they provide knowledge and information that has lasting significance (Webb et. al., 2010). He sees this crisis as being particularly significant at the university level.

Reflect on your learnings about Perennialism. 
 Write down three things you learned about
 this philosophy of education, two things you 
 found surprising, and one professional 
 connection you can make to your future 
 professional practice.

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To the extent possible under law, Della Perez has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to Social Foundations of K-12 Education, except where otherwise noted.

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